“Pioneering” is the term used by JWs to describe the full-time ministry. Many decades ago, JW pioneers actually did open up new territory (as the word would suggest) by traveling to areas not yet covered by rank and file JWs. However, as time went on the only uncovered territory was in third-world countries where missionaries would be sent, but the term “pioneer” stuck.
Any JW in good standing can apply to become a pioneer. There is a minimum requirement of hours in the field ministry. In the early 1970s that requirement was 100 hours a month/1200 hours a year which took some doing since pioneers also have to support themselves, provide their own housing and transportation, etc. Obviously, pioneers are usually barely scraping by and enjoy few luxuries.
By the late ‘70s well-paying part-time jobs became harder to find, so the Watchtower Society lowered the minimum hour requirement to 90 hours a month/1000 hours a year. I believe nowadays the hour requirement is 70 hours per month.
Because of their hard work in the ministry and sacrifices in secular life, pioneers are looked up to as spiritual giants in the congregation. It is undeniable that some individual pioneers are among the Truly Devoted and have nothing but the purest of motives for the work they do. However, there are others, which I can attest from personal experience since I was one of those others.
I tried to pioneer twice. The first time was back in 1979 in Boston, Massachusetts. My DH (dear hubby) was experiencing a difficulty that would haunt him for our entire marriage – he couldn’t handle male authority in the workplace. In fact, he became so upset, yea, even enraged, with his bosses that he would have homicidal impulses and sometimes have to leave work to cool down because, as he would tell me, “I was going to kill him.”
Despite the fact that we were in debt, had no automobile, and were living in squalor, DH decided (under the influence of his homicidal urges) that we should quit our office jobs, advertise for housecleaning work, and go pioneering. I was not enthusiastic about this idea, mostly because of the reasons listed above, but also because the ministry had never been one of my favorite activities, and doing it for 90 hours a month was about as appealing as being forced to clean other people’s bathrooms.
Being a submissive JW wife I had to yield to his decision, quit a good job, take up a mop and bucket in one hand, a bookbag in the other, and follow him. I knew it was folly, and so it proved to be. We moved into an even more squalid apartment replete with hordes of cockroaches (when I’d open the cupboards, the suction would pull one out so that it hit me in the face), equipped ourselves for housecleaning, and set forth.
Our urban territory consisted of tightly packed 5-story apartment buildings. Usually we would have to stand in the lobby and ring buzzers, and when buzzed in go only to the apartment that buzzed, then return to the lobby and recommence buzzing. Very few people buzzed us in, some lobbies were filthy, and the winter weather was miserable. In between, we cleaned houses and hallways. I hated every single second of it.
Within 8 months we were physically and emotionally destroyed. DH was wasting away from thyroid disease, I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and we needed to be rescued by DH’s parents.
My second attempt at pioneering was about 15 years later in coastal Maine, and my reason for signing up was less than honorable – I had fallen in love with a single pioneer brother in the congregation. DH and I were still married, to be sure, but I was horribly unhappy with him. Brother Wonderful, on the other hand, made me happy, and the best way to ensure plenty of time in his company was to pioneer. I blush in shame at the memory.
Unknown to me, Brother Wonderful had applied to attend a special Watchtower school that trained males to take on higher responsibilities with the idea being they would move away from their home congregations. A mere 2 months after I began pioneering Brother Wonderful was gone. I was left with the rest of the pioneers in the congregation, the youngest of which was in his mid-60s.
My days turned into hours of driving around a tiny island with 4 cranky, bickering, complaining elderly people, one of whom was tottering along the narrow edge of senility. Every morning began with a stop at Eva’s so someone could go in with her and find her hearing aid. Otherwise, we’d be shouting at her all day long. We didn’t do much real preaching. Mostly, we drove around doing “magazine calls,” which meant stuffing the Watchtower and Awake underneath the doors of people who had taken the magazines once before. It was tedious and disheartening. My days ended in tears.
Since I started in September, most of my pioneering time occurred during the winter, which in Maine is punishing. One day when I was driving a carload of old ladies, we lost traction and slid backwards down a one-lane road bordered by forest. Luckily, we missed the trees, and when we got out of there I drove straight to the town garage and filled a bucket with sand to prevent any further traction issues.
Despite the daily torture, I managed to hack it long enough to get to attend Pioneer Service School, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend 2 weeks in intense Bible study away from your home. Granted, the home I stayed in was less than clean and smelled strongly of old dog. They even had a snake in a cage. I opted to stay in the dog-scented room rather than sleep with the snake. Daily sessions were held in the local Kingdom Hall, and meals were provided. It was heaven. I’m a scholar at heart, so studying came naturally. We also participated in the ministry, which I would rather have skipped.
I came home from Pioneer School full of enthusiasm and got back into that carful of cranky, elderly people. Within days I was totally deflated. I developed some health problems and couldn’t keep up the pioneering.
When I think of “pioneering” what rushes to mind is gray winter skies, leafless trees, and a carload of bickering gray-haired folks driving in an endless loop around an island off the coast of Maine.